Approach and RPG Design

I was talking the other day with some RPG design nerd friends (let's be clear, they're nerds about a lot of things, this was just the overlap we were talking about) about items and what makes items in RPGs fun. We've all gotten to the "because they let you do things you couldn't otherwise do" part, even if we're sure there's something else we're missing.

I pointed out that in the real world, technology (usually) gets invented to do a thing we already do better in someway, and then we figure out the new things it allows us to do. W said I was looking at broad technology, like computers, where they were looking at Joe PC's L33t MaGIc Haxxzor Rig. which got us to looking at the forest to figure out how to implement the trees, "Needs moar tree.", and the design failures of writing the forest, i.e. interchangeable and uninteresting items.

All of which has me thinking about the approach to RPG design issues. Is it better to start from the tree level: what do you want X to do in your game? Or is it better to start from the forest level: what makes X fun? How does that integrate and impact the other aspects of the system? How does X actually work in the real world and how are we importing it into the game?

... As you might be able to tell from having more forest questions, when approaching an abstract question like this, I default to 'forest' mode.

That said, my personal opinion is it depends. I know, real useful that. But I don't think this is something you can look at in isolation. A systemic, big picture approach is probably going to work better for a more narrative heavy system, one with more abstraction up at the systemic level. A deep dive into individual components, a more 'tree' approach if you will, is going to work better in systems where you want the difference between different items of the same type matter to game play.

Also, in my ideal RPG design scenario, you have multiple perspectives. Even if you're the sole designer for a product, being able to bounce thoughts and ideas off of someone who approaches things from a different perspective (writing groups are great guys) is going to get you a stronger product. 

That's the whole idea behind play testing, isn't it? Hand off your project to someone who only knows what's on the page (instead of what's in your head) and see if it works.

Convention Report

Partner and I went to a small convention a couple weekends ago (MarsCon near Williamsburg, VA) and got to play five different games in one day. It was great.

Bridge Simulator

This one was a cooperative video game (still in development). Y'all play the bridge crew of a spaceship out on a mission or part of a campaign. There are five stations—Flight, Tactical, Science, Operations, and Engineering—plus the Captain's seat. I played Flight and didn't crash our ship into a planet! I kinda picked a station last and got asked to play Flight, an option I was really nervous doing because I don't multitask well or have great situational awareness. I thought Flight would need both those skills, although less so than Tactical (they shoot the guns! pew pew!) but it turned out I was okay on the Flight station. We didn't die, moved at a decent speed (space is big guys), and I kept the enemy fighters that showed up in range and view well enough for my friend L to shoot them all to itty-bitty bits. Partner played the Captain, who doesn't actually get a screen to play with, and kept communication between the stations working well. Plus made some good command decisions. As I said, my friend L was on Tactical, her partner W was on Engineering (keeps the power routed optimally for what we're doing), and two folks we'd never met before were on Science (scan objects around us) and Operations (communicate with other ships). The set-up we played had a big main screen projector and everyone had a pretty big touchscreen in front of us. But! It's playable off a central computer and connecting via a browser. So, the four of us (Partner, L, W, and myself) could hangout together on the game from our homes. Which would be really neat. for anyone interested.

Century: Spice Road

A competitive card drafting board game. This one is all about building and playing a deck that gains and converts cubes (theoretically representing spices) into the right combinations to purchase victory point cards. There's four different actions you can do during your turn: take a card from the market, play a card from your hand, pick up all your played cards, or purchase a victory card. The game goes around players' turns remarkably fast, too.

I prefer the skinning of a different game with the same mechanics (from the same designer) we played later in the con, which I'll talk about later. I did not win this game, in fact out of five players, if I recall correctly, I came in dead last. But I like the mechanics, I think I can see what I need to do to have a winning strategy, and now it's just a matter of getting the practice to get better. I had fun playing with friends and am happy that L and W are considering buying the other skinned version.

Potion Explosion and Tiny Epic Galaxies

Partner and I introduced these games to some folks at the convention, both friends we already know and a new person we met this convention. My description of Potion Explosion still holds and it's still one of my favorite games. Bonus, now that W's played, he's decided that the game really needs a marble randomizer tower (like a dice tower) and is considering making one (he does quite a bit of woodwork) over the summer. Assuming he has time.

Tiny Epic Galaxies is an area influence/control game with what you can do determined by the dice gods, although there is a mechanic for re-rolling utterly awful crud. Everything fits into this small box and the lid turns into a tray for containing those dice you roll. And the artwork in the box is great. The goal is to accumulate points through controlling planets and upgrading your empire (which incidentally gets you more resources towards doing things and controlling planets). There's a couple different types of planets which need different resources to gain control of them and each planet gives you a different benefit or optional action when you do control them. It's a tightly designed, fun game that I'm glad we got to introduce to a few friends. 

Century: Golem Edition

This is the differently skinned version of Century: Spice Road I mentioned earlier. It's the exact same game mechanics wise, just with different art and theoretical premise. Those cubes you're gaining and converting in Spice Road are knobby rocks here which represent soul crystals. Turning in the soul crystals (i.e. buying a victory point card) represents making those crystals into golems (as drawn on the victory cards). It just makes more sense to me, from a narrative view point. Also, I think the art is a little funnier and a bit cuter. So, I rather own and/or play Golem Edition over Spice Road. 

It was a good convention, full of board gaming.

Masada's Redoubt, part five — prepping to run

I've talked to 3 out of four potential players, our podcast is going to add a new cast member so I'll wait and talk to them to see if they want in as the fourth player, I've put together a spreadsheet to track all the things I've been talking about in this series, and I've put together an outline for what I want to happen in the first session. Oh, and I even have the first session scheduled! For February. Because we schedule one month ahead. Thank goodness.

Hopefully my players aren't going to read this particular post, or if they do they're bad at meta-gaming, because I'm going to talk about this first session I'm planning. 

Since the campaign is really about setting up the enclave, I don't want to do an enclave creation session, which would traditionally be the first session. So what I'm planning is to start the players out at the end of Operation Utility in the last site they were working to shut down. They'll have a certain amount of resources left (NPCs, vehicles, and other materiel) and then Gnat's Whisper comes down and they should realize they're all fucked. At least in terms of getting back to the Recession. 

If the players immediately move to 'we have to find somewhere and hole up,' I can just proceed forward. Otherwise time for Masada to walk in and give a speech. I should probably write that out, or at least write the first paragraph and outline the rest — if I don't, I'll have a hard time improvising in the moment. Knowing myself. Also at this point, I'll have to see if they choose to loot the retro-virology lab I'm starting them in and, if they do, whether they go for short-term medical supplies or long-term laboratory supplies. The specific supplies  won't affect the rest of this session but is all about what happens in future sessions. How long they spend looting will affect this session though, which I'll get into later.

Then a Red Markets Leg — loot a hardware store, loot a grocery store, or skip? The plan is that loot from the hardware store will improve the odds of the future enclave having enough housing and a working dock for fishing vessels. The grocery store will allow the enclave to feed itself for a little bit. Either option takes time. I'm thinking the hardware store could be looted in the next session without too much of the potential Haul going bad. The grocery store on the other hand... well it has been about two months since the Crash started, so the perishables have all perished. I guess the canned foods would still be good and the potential total Haul should stay the same... Oh! Hardware stores have garden centers — I should let the enclave get vegetable gardening going off of loot from the hardware store. Actually, I should make the players choose between what they're looting: tools, lumber, or gardening supplies.

And then we're on to the main meat of the scenario, in my mind—the docks. This is where how long players have spent looting is going to matter. The set up is that there about 200 civilians on the docks and they players have to choose how they're going to deal with them: 1) fuck off to the island they've chosen to set up an enclave on and tell people to meet them there, 2) split the party with half staying to check the civilians for bites then evacuating them and half going ahead to the island, or 3) hold the docks for the checks for bites and evacuation. What the players shouldn't know is that there's been a countdown timer ticking down based on how long they've spent looting and when it reaches zero, an attack of Vectors at the docks. If they're smart, they'll have someone on watch and see it coming. But any rate, the options:

Option one gets them an easier time clearing the island of zombies—I'll have everything on the island have dropped into torpor so they can walk through, coup de gracing everything without using ammunition. But very few people are going to make it off the docks with few boats to actually populate the enclave. Well, not everyone died on the docks, I'll have a few boats floating in the area where everyone died from someone going Vector on the boat. That will give me a vignette or two plus maybe a job for the players to deal with those consequences: a boat running aground on their island or having to board and clear to get the boat for the enclave fishing fleet before it does run aground. 

Option two has two sub-options: the players hold the docks and the NPCs clear the island or vice versa. Either way, the zombies on the island will come out of Torpor during the push to clear the island. If the players clear the island, they'll have to clear as many zombies as possible and then fight the ones that come out of Torpor, the NPCs at the docks will loose 4 people and get about half the boats and population available evacuated. If the NPCs clear the island, I'll have the team loose 2 NPCs while the number of civilians and boats that make it to the island is determined by how long the players hold the docks. I'll give them a couple rounds to set up barricade, X number of civilians get onto boats per round, and the question is, what do they do and how long do they hold the docks. I think this will be the nastiest Vector attack.

Option three gets the most people evacuated before the Vector attack and they'll need to hold the docks for the fewest rounds to get everyone evacuated. But then they have to immediately go into the fight to clear the island and get the fewest rounds with the zombies in Torpor. Although theoretically they should have the largest number of NPCs as support.

Here's hoping I can keep this session appropriately bleak and tense. You know, my biggest weaknesses as a GM—and why I'm challenging myself this way.

Masada's Redoubt, part four — economy

A friend on Facebook had a really useful comment (thanks David!)  to my first post in this series, namely that it sounded like I wanted a reputational economy. I certainly do now. 

First, I know I want this tied to politics and players' rank. Second, I think I need to leave this in the background rather than an explicit system that the players know about. My thinking here is that this will all be occurring in a society where there's been a massive decrease in technology. The information web doesn't exist to track all the interactions that go into an explicit system like the one seen in Eclipse Phase. So the reputational economy in Masada's Redoubt is more informal and small town-esque. Which means run on gossip, really.

So I think I need to track the general attitude towards my players' characters, given them bonus or penalties in the background to persuasion checks when they argue for doing one job over another and other such enclave business, and make sure to give them rep spots (an already existing mechanic for reputation outside of enclaves) when warranted.

Really, it's time for me to sit down and build a spreadsheet to do my math / tracking of the enclave building subsystems I've outlined in the previous posts. Before I start loosing information from my head.  

Masada's Redoubt, part three — location

First of all, I owe an apology to all my readers on the West Coast. In my first post, I said I remember there being a bunch of islands off the coast near Portland. Portland is not on the coast. I was thinking of Seattle (or should have been). At least my memory of Puget Sound being on the West Coast was correct...

From cruising around Google Maps a bit now, I think I'll start the campaign here:

Screen Shot 2017-12-24 at 9.40.15 PM.png

There's a bunch of small islands to start on (small being easier to clear off) which should, if I recall my climate science correctly, be sheltered from the worst of ocean weather by the honking huge island known as Vancouver Island to the west and relatively easy access to the Pacific fishing grounds with that strait between the western part of Washington state and Vancouver Island.

Plus, if the enclave does well and gets ambitious, they can work on clearing all the casualties off all of Vancouver Island for living or agriculture area. Also, to the southeast are the connected (ish?) islands of Fidalgo, Whidbey, and Camano, all of which are in fact islands (or will be when the roads wash out) but easily connectable to the mainland. Good staging ground raids on the mainland or beginning to clear it out.

Also, given the proximity to the part of Canada that didn't get nuked, I think I'll be able to work in some interesting things mixing up the population between Americans and Canadians. Plus the politics between American and Canadian enclaves.

Masada's Redoubt, part two

Infrastructure! The word I couldn't for the life of me remember on that list of things I needed to keep track of was infrastructure. Sheesh.  

So time to walk through that Food stat I said I would last post. My initial thoughts came in bullet point format, which I'll just reproduce here:

  • Short-Term Supplies
  • Industries: Farming, gardening, fishing, foraging, preserving
    • necessary infrastructure
    • how much adds to:
      • human resources required
      • supplies generated per month
  • Effect on
    • morale
    • health
    • imports required
    • exports generated

Except, picture these hand written, less organized, and with little arrows between things. Keep in mind that I'm not sure how much of this is actually going to be conveyed to players and how often I'm just going to say things like "the enclave's supplies of food are getting low. You've got enough for a month or two, but if the fish harvest is low or there's a problem in preservation, you're gonna be in trouble."  

On to specifics. My thinking is that short-term supplies should just tick down by a set amount per X number (probably 100) of people in the enclave per month. Each industry should have two stats: the number of people working the industry and how much it adds to the short-term supply per month. Huh, maybe I should just rename 'short-term supply ' to 'supply' and fold the preserving industry into all of the others—you have to preserve the food (as appropriate to the food type) for it to add to supply. Obviously I need to have the players bring in the appropriate supplies (preservation, tools, or other wise) to improve the industry, but after that, I should probably leave it as flavor. 'Necessary infrastructure' is what the industry needs the players to bring in from outside because, for one reason or another, the enclave doesn't have access otherwise. I think I should rename this to 'Needs and Wants' and keep in mind that it can be materials, information (how-to particularly), and/or people (trained or untrained). And, to keep from having the same term refer to a subset under Food and a section all on its own, I'll rename Industries here to sectors.

On the effects section, I think these are derived stats and probably not anything the players need to see. I might let them, if they're interested, but given the over the internet set-up of our games/campaigns, I don't expect them to want to. It's just harder to share or peruse extra materials in the online set-up (in my experience). My thinking on morale and health was that the same food, day in and day out, isn't great from a nutritional or life-enjoyment stand point. Not to mention the hit to morale that starving to death is. I'm thinking that if the players keep the various industries in a reasonable balance, there shouldn't be any hits to morale or health from Food. Meanwhile, bringing home unexpected luxuries (like a score of sugar, some protein that the enclave doesn't usually see, or the material to start a new venture within the agriculture sector [why are chickens the first thing I think of?!]) should provide a temporary boost to morale. Imports, to the Food sector, should be something nutritionally missing from the enclave (and ought to provide the players ideas, if I'm GMing right) while exports could be any individual industry producing more supply per month than consumed. I am definitely going to have to keep an eye on the enclave population.

So after thinking through stuff as part of this post, the redone list of things under 'Food' looks like this:

  • Supplies
  • Sectors: Farming, gardening, fishing, foraging
    • needs and wants
    • manpower required
    • supplies generated per month
    • exports generated
  • Imports required
  • Effect on
    • morale
    • health

And that's more or less what the behind the scenes stats for the enclave I'm planning to keep are going to look like. I'll make a post about all of them once I think through everything and talk about how I'm planning to have them interact with each other, but the next post will be about location.

Project Development: getting my GM on

As if I don't have enough projects on my plate, active or waiting in the wings, I have an idea for a campaign I really want to run on my podcast. So in the interests of actually trying to get this idea into the light and make it happen, I'm going to chronicle my developing it on this blog. At least for a few posts. I don't know how many posts it will take me to get it where I need to actually start testing it with people / running the game. Or far enough along that I wouldn't want my players to get some insider knowledge. Or I hit the point where I really need their input.

Wow, I'm babbling a bit. Eh, this post at least is going to be stream of consciousness-esque.

Okay, so I want to run a Black Math game in Red Markets, but with a bit of a twist. First, Black Math in RM is a type of cult who's main ethos is that for humanity to survive some people need to take on the burden of killing as many zombies as possible. Because every human who dies is potentially a zombie who will kill more people and bringing in reinforcements to the human side takes at least fifteen years. If you're willing to put kids on the zombie killing line. Basically, it's a cult about upping your Kills to Death (K/D) ratio. A Black Math game would be a campaign where all the players are members of Black Math.

The twist I want to play with is that the leader of this particular branch of Black Math is all about the long-term. None of this going out in a blaze of glory with "a significant subtraction" — it's your duty to last as long as you can in order to build a sustainable community which can methodically eliminate zombies, reclaim territory, and survive against the American Recession government whenever the T-Minus Never comes.

First, I developed the leader of this group, bouncing ideas off of Partner and here's what we came up with. This person is an IDF soldier who was over in Colorado training American troops as part of an exchange program when the Crash went down. They were swept up into Operation Utility, in a company pushing west from Colorado, securing a variety of sites and moving on to the next. When Gnat's Whisper went out, the company was down to a couple squads, they were in command through attrition and knowing what the heck they were doing, and were going by the name Masada. Masada's reaction to the Whisper was basically a 'no shit, what else were you idiots expecting? Come on, we have another site to secure.'

Second, I figured that after surviving Operation Utility, they'd want somewhere very defensible. I remembered that there's a bunch of islands off of the West Coast, near Portland and figured an island would fit the bill nicely. So, I'm going to need to site down with Google Maps at some point soonish and pick out an island I think you could fit 500 (ish) people to live on. Not necessarily grow crops for 500 people on, just shove them all on the island.

Third, what did I want this campaign to be about? Well, I want it to be about building this long-term plan for the community. Which is slightly off from the ethos of RM, so there's going to have to be a lot of hacks / sub-system I build on-top of the current system to make this game. Which is going to be the majority of what I'll end up writing about in these blog posts, I expect. There's already rules in Red Markets for long-term investments, small businesses, and group retirements, so I don't think this is directly contrary to the assumptions of the game. But I do think I need to really think things through before we get to the table.

I also know I want to start the game from year one, basically right as the Crash is happening and you need to scramble to keep build your enclave. So I know I'm going to need to think through what sort of loot is available for the players to bring back to the enclave and how that changes over time.

I need to figure out the set of things the enclave needs to develop to become self-sufficient. The things that need to happen so everyone doesn't die in the short-term and how those help or hinder setting up long-term solutions. I'm planning on having the players be Takers in the original sense of the word in game, so they aren't going to be making bounty to upkeep their gear — which means I need a system in place to represent how much the community can put towards keeping them and their gear in functional order (whatever I set up for this, I'm going to call this 'stat' Support).

My initial list of things I'll need to track are:

  • Defense
  • Housing
  • Food
  • Industry
  • Support
  • Morale
  • Internal social structures

I'll walk through an example for Food next post (hopefully Monday), because I think that's going to be the easiest way to think through and illustrate how I currently think things will work. But before I go I do have some thoughts on the internal economy of Masada's Redoubt (because obviously that's what it named itself in my head) — a cross between a kibbutz and American military socialism. Don't argue with me, the American military, internally anyway, is fairly hierarchically socialist. Your housing, food, shelter, and medical care are supposed to be provided by the state actor (the military) plus you have an assigned job according to your abilities and training. What else is an IDF soldier commanding American troops going to use as a governmental model? Yes, military training to the point of self-defense (as well as defending any other civilians, particularly children) is mandatory for citizenship. I think I may need to dig into how Israel and Switzerland do compulsory military service. And I blame having read Starship Troopers at a semi-formative age. Heinlein's always blamable :P

System Review : Monsterhearts 2nd Edition

What, an actual gaming blog post on a Thursday like I originally envisioned for this blog, whaaat? 

Any rate, a review of the second edition of Monsterhearts. 

Monsterhearts is a role-playing system about the drama being a teenager and a supernatural monster. The game is centered around the social ties between characters and various ways they interact with each other. It is explicitly poc and queer friendly, with the ability written into the game to turn on another character, without restrictions on gender or sexuality — in fact, the author urges players to discover their character's sexuality over the course of the game through who successfully turns whom on. It's a collaboratively narrative game focused on social interactions and characters being not very nice to each other, in that way that generates drama and fun at the table.

The second edition is  primarily a refinement and expansion upgrade. One character type (The Chosen (think Buffy)) was moved from a default option offered in the book to an expansion option available on the system website, based on feedback the author received on how that centered a game on that character type (and how often people chose to play the character). Another character type was promoted to replace The Chosen in the book. Some of the abilities of characters were refined. A discussion on asexuality, how it interacts in the game, and suggestions on incorporating it into a game was included. New writers added a section on explicitly including diversity in the game and suggestions for handling playing characters outside your own ethnicity responsibly. A discussion on checking in with players and tools to use to making sure everyone is comfortable with potentially difficult material was also added.

Over all, I would say that the second edition of Monsterhearts is a worthy and useful continuation of the game. If you're new to the system, I would recommend the second edition over the first. If you already have the first edition, I would say to save your money for a new system altogether. Unless you want to support the author — I'm never going to object to people looking to support their artists. The mechanics updates aren't different enough to get you a new game. The expanded discussion of factors at the table is a good one and one the industry and its players desperately needs to keep having, but if you already have the first edition, it's a discussion you can research and educate yourself on online.

Takeaway: Good update, I'm glad to own the 2nd edition, recommend the 2nd over the 1st as the place to get into the game, not necessary for folks who already own the 1st edition.

Playtesting a Scenario

So a few weeks ago I ran the scenario I wrote in late October/early November (parts one, two, three, and four) over on Technical Difficulties. Originally we were going to have three players, but someone had to drop out last minute. Thus, I ended up running it for just two players, like I originally decided to write the scenario for. I think I got lucky with who ended up being able to play, from the perspective of getting good feedback — Ethan designs scenarios himself and I could observe Partner in the moment to get body-language feedback on how things were working. Folks had fun (me included), even if the scenario didn't work out how I intended. Or produced the type of game A Dirty World is written to facilitate.

The issue I found was that I had written the scenario backwards. I started with what had happened and worked out from there what evidence was left for the PCs to find. Which would have been fine except for one thing: I had a huge disconnect between the PCs knowing nothing and getting their first clue. More or less, once they had the first piece of information about the crime, they had everything. Or so it felt to me. I think, in terms of building a scenario, I would have done better by starting from the no clues stage, figuring out the first layer of clues and what they'd point towards, figuring out the layer after that and what that pointed towards, and then arrive at the end goal (which I needed to keep in mind the while time). So that's a thing to keep in mind for next time. 

Another issue I found is that I had failed noir the genre. The characters I wrote weren't morally grey in a way connected to the plot. While I liked their secrets/backgrounds and they  made for some cool characterization, it wasn't connected to the issue at hand and thus never came up. What I actually ended up getting was a buddy cop scenario. The player characters had no reason to distrust each other and could bump their stats up by being semi-horrible to the suspects and therefore did. Also, I wrote a plot that happened because people did stupid things, but not in a tragic way. We all had a lot of fun playing a buddy cop scenario, it just wasn't my goal. And therefore a thing to work on – hitting my intended tone.

I was pleased with how the scenario worked with two players. But, per Ethan and Partner's suggestions, I'm planning to write up two more characters, either beat cops or detectives from another division, so the scenario can run with two or four players. I'm not designing it to work with three, because I like the structure of sets of partners.

Lessons learned: 

  • Write mystery plots as layers building up to an end goal, not as what happened so what clues are left. 
  • The One Roll Engine can do comedy in the A Dirty World instantiation
  • A Dirty World scenarios can play well with only two players
  • Ethan, Partner, and I enjoy giggling our way through playing a buddy cop scenario

Cleaning House

Visual Prompt from this photo; Part of the Pixie & Sarge Red Markets stories

“Damn good lighting in here,” Yew said, peering down the long hallway. “Did not expect that with a concrete ceiling.”

“Domed ceiling,” Pixie replied absently, from the center of the team huddle in the middle of the hallway. “Scatters the light.” She continued making her notations on the digital map the client had provided. “We’ll need to find the source, see if it's a security issue.”

“No possibility of it being artificial, I suppose,” Oak muttered, on point with Sarge aiming down the hall over his shoulder.

“That would indicate habitation, which is a different security issue.” Pixie pulled her Ubiq specs up off her eyes and into her hairline. “Original map says 50 cells a floor, two floors per wing–”

“We know.”

Revised map from the remodel before the Crash that the client did not provide me has the cells on the second floor doubled up, the central administrative tower has four floors, not three, and everything has more electronic security. Of the fail-safe variety.”

Sarge’ eyes flicked up to the second floor. “Fail-safe being lock-down.” No motion up there.


“Good for enclave security, I suppose,” Oak said. “Bad for us.”

“Eh,” Pixie shrugged, “plus side, easier to clear it out wing by wing. Down side, getting to the next wing. Where we starting Sarge?”

“Second floor, clear the cells, work our way down. Yew, take point up the stairs.”

“Hurray,” Yew muttered, advancing to the foot of the stairs, “no casualties falling on our heads today.” 


Yew was checking his retrieved arrows for new warps, bends, or weaknesses. “How many casualties was that, 20? 21?”

“24,” Oak said from the door as he stood watch. It was his turn for a breather to check his equipment as soon as Yew was done.

Sarge stared out a barred window on the first floor. “Complication.” His gun had been the first reloaded and checked for damage along with the new spear he had wielded with strength if not precision.

Pixie pushed herself to her feet with a soft whimper from the metal bed frame she'd sat on and joined Sarge at the window. Squinting, she looked past the bars. “I don't see–”

Sarge’s arm came over her shoulder, past her ear; Pixie followed the line of his finger to the overgrown grass at the junction of the next wing over and the administrative tower. “Oh. Coywolves.”

“How many?” Oak asked.

Sarge slipped an arm around Pixie and watched for a bit. “Three adults, four pups.”

“Oak, I’ve got it,” Yew said, taking up position at the door. “I vote we keep clearing the interior and worry about driving them off or re-domesticating the lot after we’re finished with the Cs.”

“Sure,” Sarge drawled. “Everyone keep an eye out for rotting things and fuzzy things trying to eat you.”

Preparing to GM

I'm running a game for Technical Difficulties next Saturday and three games at GenCon in mid-August. So this seems as good a time as any to talk about what I do to prepare to GM a game.

There's only a few systems I'm comfortable enough with to GM, but I don't regularly GM. So I don't have all the rules memorized at any one time and like to review some areas I know I'm weak in before GMing. Right now, I'm comfortable with A Dirty World (next Saturday), first edition Eclipse Phase (GenCon), and Red Markets (intermittently). I have the basic mechanics and expected genre/setting/mood of all three down (which is more or less my baseline for saying I'm comfortable with a system) but before a game, I like to review:

  • the combat system in A Dirty World, both physical and social;
  • hacking in Eclipse Phase;
  • negotiations in Red Markets.

I think with time I'll move on to a more complex part of A Dirty World than combat. Not that there's a lot more to the system — I like A Dirty World, but it designed to do one thing (noir) and one thing only. So, not the most complex of systems. Hacking in Eclipse Phase and Negotiations in Red Markets are probably going to be the go-to review sections for a while though. Hacking because it's both complex and not used frequently in games I run. Negotiations because it's just different than other systems I know and the most complex part of Red Markets, period.

In addition to reviewing the system is the prep I do for the adventure. I typically run pre-written one-shots, so I'll have to write a new post exploring how this changes if/when I run a campaign (I have an idea...) But any rate, for one-shots, I like to review the pre-generated characters, read the adventure thoroughly, let it sit for an hour or a day, and then read it over again, thinking about how my players are going to something completely bonkers.

And then the day of, I'll have the rules books to hand, ready to go aaaaaaand everything flies out of my head. So I improvise the whole thing anyway.

But the prep work means the improvising happens faster (no 5 minutes of dead air and players twiddling their thumbs) and more coherent, because I know (theoretically) where I'd like everyone to go.

Not that they go there. Player Characters == Cats. First rule of tabletop rpgs, that is.

Board Game Review: Machi Koro

Machi Koro is a visually cute city building game. Partner and I only play with The Harbor expansion added in, so keep in mind those will be the mechanics I'm describing. I wouldn't call Machi a set matching or deck building game, although aspects of some mechanics remind me of those game types. The way the game works is there are four types of building cards which give you money if you roll the number to activate it: green (gives you money on your turn only), blue (money on anyone's turn), red (take money from other people on not-your-turn), and purple (unique cards). You start rolling one die and with two cards covering numbers 1, 2, and 3. You have a market of other buildings you can purchase and a set number of achievement buildings to build. The market is created by drawing from a shuffled deck of all the buildings until there are ten unique buildings in the market. If you draw a duplicate, stack it on top of the first one and keep drawing. The winner of the game is the person who builds all their achievement buildings first.

I like what the expansion did to building the market of buildings to purchase. In the main game, you had a set block of buildings available which covered the numerical range. You could fairly easily build a city that statistically speaking ought to net you money every or every other turn. With the expansion, the market becomes luck of the draw and there's a lot more variance from game to game. For instance, the last game we played there were no four or seven buildings (in case you're wondering how you get seven on one die, one of the achievement buildings allows you to roll one or two dice). It can be frustrating if you're on the wrong end of grabbing rare buildings you need to fill in numbers gaps. But boy is it pretty if you can pull off having three buildings active on one die roll, snagging you 33 money (in a game where decent haul for one roll is 3-8).

So, Machi Koro and The Harbor expansion. I heartily recommend them. It's an easy game to pick up and learn and enough depth for repeat play. Also, and this isn't something I see very often, it plays well with 2 or 5 players as it does with 3-4. Most games tend to break down at the ends of the range of players they support. Machi is still fun at the ends.

Collaborative World Building

Several friends and I got together to create a living campaign setting in Red Markets (10K Lakes [set in Minnesota]), in order to put together a sprawling drop-in, drop-out campaign with rotating GMs. Yesterday, June 28th, the episode on enclave generation in that setting went live over on the podcast I'm part of, Technical Difficulties. We managed to rope in folks from Role Playing Exchange and [insert quest here], so this 'campaign' is going to go live on a lot of different websites...

Any rate, the reason I'm talking about it, besides marketing (which, yes, also doing that), is that I would like to talk about collaborative world building. Don't get me wrong, I think tabletop rpgs already are collaborative world building between the players and the GM over the course of a campaign. But, typically, the GM comes into the campaign with a general sense of the setting in mind. For the 10K Lakes setting however, we needed to build the entire area our characters would reasonably interact with. The system setting material gave us recent history and the general political state of the United States, but we needed to build all of Minnesota, more or less. What exists at all and the interactions between places. I like how it all turned out, so I'm leaving here my advice for others looking to build a campaign setting as an exercise in collaboration.

The first thing, is that everyone involved needs to agree on a general tone. Grimdark and whackety-shmackety-do are not going to co-exist very well and will end of pissing off both sides.

Second, outline a general sense of what you're looking to build. Is it the group's job to build out a single city down to the street names and a map? To only fill in the politics of the area at a generalized, nation-state level with maybe some discussion of geography and topography thrown in? I'm only listing the extremes here, but try to find a happy medium that gives your GM(s) enough to work with and keeps your players' interest during the collaboration phase. 

Third, scheduling. Yes, the dreaded owlbear of tabletop rpgs. In this instance though, I have perhaps unusual advice: Let it go. Find the time that the players who are really excited for world building can show up. Let the rest know that they're very welcome, but if they can't come, you're going to go ahead and run the world building because it needs to get done and their ability to play isn't dependent on contributing to world building. OR have folks who can be there bring notes and suggestions from folks who can't. It's world building, you're creating the conditions for plot to happen, not trying to move plot forward.

Fourth, and final, document. Appoint someone the note take for the session and document the awesome stuff y'all come up with. It allows folks who couldn't be there to catch up, makes passing the GM baton between sessions easier, and you don't want to lose all your work, now do you?

Old computer programmer complaint, there, sorry. But really, document your work and comment your code.

And most importantly, have fun.

Game Review: The Play's The Thing

I have not played or GM'ed this one yet; this review is entirely based on reading the rules and listening to RPPR's actual play (Bouncy Castle Inverness!)

The Play's The Thing is a game about actors playing characters to put on a stage play. So you, the player, are an actor who is, in turn, a character within a play. You the player are in-character as your actor who can yell 'cut!' to try and talk the GM-who-is-the-play-director into allowing an edit to the play as y'all rehearse. Actors have types, plays have places, and characters have parts, plots, and props. Got it? Good, 'cause I need another read through of the rules or three.

One of the things I really appreciate the author doing is the nine Shakespeare plays they broke down into a cast list and five act structure that fits the rules set-up. One, that's like including nine one-shot adventures just ready to go for new GMs. Two, it's a great illustration of how to do it for any other play. While the central expectation of the system is that you're going to use Shakespeare's plays, I honestly don't see why you couldn't use a play from someone else. It's a nice flexibility to the system that I appreciate.

From the rules, this system also appears to have hit a sweet spot a lot of indie narrativist games have a hard time finding, the balance between doing a type of RPG play really well and long-term play. The system deals with the problem of character progression leading to over powered character really fast (*cough*Monster Hearts*cough*) by making progression non-linear. You don't get better at bending the story in your direction, you change up your approach and goals by shifting between actor types. It's character development instead of skill development in a way that allows the player to write a narrative for the actor over several sessions who writes narratives for their part in each session. 

Admittedly, I'm not sure how many non-theater nerds are going to want to play a campaign, but I think the structure in the rules is there for it.

I'm looking forward to trying this out with my gaming group. I'm thinking of trying to adapt The Maltese Falcon to the system as a play and seeing how badly the plot gets butchered :D

Board Game Review: Potion Explosion

Our purchase of Potion Explosion was actually an exception to Partner and my rules about buying board games. They're expensive and there's only so much space in our place, so the rule is we both have to have played the game (we usually do this at gaming conventions) and both agree that we want to play it again, multiple times.  But, Caleb and Spencer over on the Mixed Six described the game so well and broke down why  they enjoy the game such that Partner and I looked at each other and agreed we'd enjoy the game too. And we were right. So thanks Mixed Six! Y'all found us our current favorite game.

Potion Explosion does set matching with actual marbles. The conceit of the game is that we are alchemy students working on our exam with a common set of possible potions to brew and ingredients to use. A track for the marbles to slide down is set up with five columns. You pull a marble and if the marbles that now clink together match in color, you've created an explosion and get to pull those marbles as well. Yes, it can keep cascading from there. Partner has pulled off some impressive cascading explosions. Potions can be used once after creation to do different things that break the rules once and at the end each potion is worth different amounts based on how many marbles and how many of different colors were needed to create the potion. There's eight types of potions but you only play with six in any given game, so which potions combo with others changes from game to game. It produces a lot of replay value.

Here's a slightly weird thing to talk about in board game design, but I feel it's emblematic of just how much attention to detail the designers put in and how well thought out everything is. So the very first time you play the game, you have to put together the stand the marbles will roll down. The box is built to hold the finished stand. You never have to take it apart and put it back together again. Seriously guys, the game would be a lot less fun if set up included having to rebuild this thing every game. But you don't because the designers were smart.

No if only I was as smart about taking off the front barrier to let the marbles slide into the storage bag. I've, um, had to rebuild the stand once or twice from doing that. I'm getting better with keeping the rest of the stand together and only taking the front barrier off, so I'm pretty sure this was also intentional design.

Overall, any one game of Potion Explosion does not outstay its welcome — individual games are fast enough that I don't get tired of the gimmick of marbles clicking together. There's a decent amount of strategy involved, the sound and physicality of the pieces are satisfying, and there's tremendous replay. I absolutely enjoy playing this game.

Gaming and Energy Levels Afterwards

I like hanging out with folks but eventually they're just exhausting, and I need to do my own thing for a while. And sometimes (frequently) I don't actually know what I'm feeling until I paused and check in on my own mental state. Or everything builds up enough that it's like getting hit upside the head with an emotional clue bat. Either way.

The point though, is that lately I've been using how tired and/or wanting to retreat from the world I am after gaming sessions in order to figure if I enjoyed myself. It's not a binary (tired = bad session, excited = good), but it is a useful metric for myself. For both one-shots and campaigns, at least if there's a recurring pattern to the campaign episodes. 

So far, the results have been: 

Energized — a lot of fun and I'm probably already planning things to do next session (sorry Chris. Craig is just a lot of fun to scare you with.) 

Neither energized or tired — eh, I didn't have much screen time and the other players weren't all that engaging to me. 

Tired but want to hang out with Partner — good session that was either long or contained material I found challenging to role play. 

Tired and don't want to interact — session was a slog.

Thankfully there haven't been many type fours recently, but what there have been have reconfirmed I am still the type of player more focused on the overall plot than anything else. Combat sessions can be a type one or two, but if I don't know how it advances the plot or gets our party towards a goal, I get bored. No matter how cool the combat was.

Perils of being a cooperativist, I suppose. I just can't get into it solely to look cool. Not trying to yuck on anyone else's fun with that, just how I prefer to play.

No wonder I like mystery games. There's a structured goal.  😁 

Learning the Rules

We recently had friends from out of town over who are big board game fans, so we broke out some of the games we have that they haven't had a chance to play yet.  In a way, it's nicer than introducing and being introduced to new games by more local friends because with local friends there's the question of 'do I buy this game I liked or are we going to see these friends often enough it makes more sense to just play with them?' Or maybe that's only a question for very introverted folks like myself. Either way, with friends from out of town there's no question about cross-board game collection duplication so everyone is free to just buy the new game or not.

On the list of games played were Machi Koro, Lords of Waterdeep, Five Tribes, and Flashpoint. This was the third (or fourth?) time Partner and I have played Flashpoint and I think we finally got the rules right? Co-operative games are not Partner's favorite style of game, so there's been some long breaks between each time we've played. 

Flashpoint is a cooperative game where players take on the role of firefighters and try to rescue seven people before fire consumes the building or four people die.  Yes, some of the people are actually the family pets. Part of the game play is not knowing which points on the board are actually people and which are false alarms until a player gets to that point on the board. There are different firefighters who have different numbers of action points (the in game currency which you turn into things your character can do) and different special abilities. For instance, this time I played the Rescue Specialist who has an average number of action points and three free action points which can only be used for movement. After every player's turn, we roll to see where in the house smoke now appears and if that immediately turns into fire. That's the part we finally got right this time; previously we'd been rolling for  smoke after we'd all finished for the round. Nope, no rounds, just continuous cycles of player turns. 

We got our butts kicked by the board. Pulled three people out, eliminated two (out of four) hazardous materials from the board, and were escorting two more folks out of the building when the whole thing collapsed on us. Three out of four players' characters died. Bad days. 

When it comes to board games (and role-playing games), I do expect it to take us a few times playing before we actually get the rules down, especially given the complexity of games Partner and I prefer. Part of the issue is that the first game we played was on the family version side of the board which is a) intended for including pre-teen kids and b) actually a different rules set. A simplified version of the advanced board rules set, true, but the more complex parts of the advanced rules set were excised rather than simplified, if I recall correctly. So the practice we got with the first game was something we actually had to unlearn. To put it in terms of Dungeons and Dragons edition sets, it'd be like playing a combat session under the 4e rules in order to prepare for a 5e campaign. Just different games.

Honestly, I think taking a few games to get the rules right as signs of a feature not a bug. If it takes us a bit to get the rules right that means we enjoyed the game enough to play again — actually, Partner and I have an agreement not to buy any games until both of us have played it once (this is what gaming conventions are for) and agreed that we liked it enough to buy the game. So playing a few games at home means the game is interesting and complex enough to continue being interesting as we get the rules down. Also Flashpoint is a cooperative game — cooperative games are designed to be hard. They have to be to supply the difficulty normally supplied by competing against other people. Complex rules sets are one way of making a game difficult.

Actually, that was part of Partner's initial complaints about the game, that he thought the game was too easy. When we were playing it on the family version. Hopefully I'll be able to talk him into giving it another try soonish. I'm interested to see how it plays with only two players: is two not enough to save folks or is it like Pandemic which just gets insanely harder with three and four players.

So, in the final counting, would I recommend this game? If you like cooperative games about managing actions, then yes, this is a well executed, fun example of the genre with skinning that merges well with the game mechanics.

Gaming and Failed Character Arcs

We recently wrapped up our Monsters and Other Childish Things campaign over on Technical Difficulties, and I've been ruminating on my character(s) from the campaign. 

I like the initial concept I started with — a girl and her blink puppy — but that's about where the character stayed over 15 game sessions, at an initial concept. I am a reactive player. I typically have a sense of where my character is and who they are at start of play, then further define them and how they change in reaction to what's happening in game. Instead of having an idea of what they want and proactively making it happen in game. I can, and have, had interesting, fun characters with well-developed story arcs with this method. But I don't consider it a great way to go about these things — more of a bad habit I have yet to learn to recognize the early signs of and break out of.

For me in the Monsters and Other Childish Things campaign, my problem was that it became mostly combat focused. 

In a separate (currently on going) campaign, in the Better Angels system, this is really biting me in the butt character-wise. Character progression in this system happens through 'sin' and I'm not naturally choosing sin as a reactive move. Honestly this is helping  me a lot — since it's built into the system so deeply I've noticed the problem earlier and have a reward mechanism already in place for trying to break out of this habit.

I honestly think the solution is all on me. I need to do some planning before game night. I need to sit down and think through what my character wants and their plan to get it. Or what I as a player want to see happen and come up with ideas on how to make it happen. I need to preplan some ideas for scenes.

I suppose I could do this right after sessions while the story/plot/events are all still fresh in my mind, but I'm usually emotionally wiped at the end of a gaming session. A good one anyway. 

Board Game Review: Takenoko (Pandas!)

Honestly, this game is filed in my brain as 'Pandas!', not, you know, its actual name: Takenoko.  


It's another rather pretty game, but unlike Dixit, that's less the point of the game and more just good design and product development. The story is that you are a gardner to the Emperor of Japan who has just been given a panda and put you in charge of keeping it alive. And still in charge of cultivating the garden.

Basically Takenoko is a set matching game where you only have a limited number of moves to make in each round, that you choose from a larger set. You have to choose between expanding the board, picking up irrigation channels, moving the panda, moving the gardner, or picking up more sets to match (the only source of points). Furthermore the 'weather' is chosen each round by a die roll, only one face of the die allows bamboo to grow at all!

It's a game I'm still trying to figure out my preferred play style/strategy for. It would probably help if we could finally remember all the rules and stop allowing multiple tools on various tiles. Technically you're only allowed one tool per tile. We keep forgetting that. Although, last game we remembered that half way through, instead of three-fourths or at the end. So, you know, progress! 

I'm curious to see if the game play changes substantially between a two-player game and the three- and four-player games we've played so far. I think the difference between getting to affect the board layout every other turn and less is going to be substantial, but I really want test that instead of trying to assert something off of instinct. Trained by playing Euro board games for a decade (when did that happen?!) but instinct none the less. Empirical testing is better. Also gets partner and I a game. :)

The short version: Cute game with mechanics I enjoy that I'm not tired of playing yet and would totally recommend to folks.